Here’s the deal: we’re all sick of unprecedented times. We are tired. Beyond that, we’re all feeling legitimate grief over life as we knew it – you know, the “normal” life we all took for granted just a few months ago.
Now we’re entering the “return to school” world. And boy is it a disaster. On a scale of Not Crazy to This is Really, Absurdly Bad, the re-opening plans for most public school districts are Really, Absurdly Bad.
Parents are being asked to juggle work from home schedules – or working in-person as essential worker schedules – with an obstacle course of in-person distanced, hybrid in-person and virtual learning, virtual learning, or going to a full-on DIY homeschooling method.
In short, all of these choices are terrible. And none of them give parents or students what they need. What we need? A pandemic gap year. Sounds crazy, right? Hear me out.
Why should you trust me on this subject?
I have experienced nearly every type of schooling:
- Private elementary school
- Homeschooling in elementary school and middle school
- Public high school
- Public university for undergrad studies
- Private university for grad studies
Within those spheres, I’ve done in-person learning, virtual asynchronous learning, virtual synchronous learning, self-directed independent study – you name it. I’ve also worked mostly from home for the past 8 years.
Basically, I feel my experience makes me knowledgable about what’s bad and what’s good about this situation. I’m also experienced in crisis and change management, which is a fancy way of saying I’m trusted to advise companies on what to do when the worst happens.
What schools are getting wrong
Let me preface this by stating:
- Teachers are going above and beyond; they really care about their students and their careers, and it shows
- Schools have government-mandated standards they need to uphold
- Unions that protect teachers and school staff have specific requirements that need to be fulfilled, as agreed upon by the union and the district(s)
- I am aware that the world is currently a $#!*show.
But that doesn’t mean those things shouldn’t change or that those policies work for the world right now. And those things aside, it’s unreasonable to expect:
- Parents, working or not, to facilitate education for kids; we’re simply not equipped for this
- That a “normal” Monday-Friday, standard schedule will continue from home
- Children to spend approximately 8 hours per day in front of a screen
- That parents and caregivers have the ability to organize their schedules so they can accommodate reduced schedules, A/B schedules, alternate schedules, virtual learning modules – the list goes on
- That parents and caregivers can maintain a healthy home environment and learn the completely new skill of “facilitating distance learning” while experiencing: a public health crisis; a dramatic change in worldwide rules and regulations from travel to going to the grocery store; isolation and lack of social support; financial disruptions, and more.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s have a real conversation about an innovative and empathetic approach to re-opening schools.
The solution: Sit this one out
What the world needs now is a break – not more to process and adjust to. Without the structure of full-day, in-person classroom options, the idea of at home “school” that must take place during normal business hours simply doesn’t work.
Think about what your child will truly miss from having a year-long gap in education.
If we were talking “precedented times,” they’d miss out on a lot of socialization, like lunch with their friends, recess, sharing, and being responsible members of the classroom ecosystem. But when you must stay 6 feet apart from your neighbor with a mask on behind a plastic shield, what is the experience you’re missing out on? Trauma? No, thank you.
In terms of actual learning, the idea that if kids were to take an extended break they would fail to be educated is false. Every year in America children take time away from school in the summer and return to the classroom ready to learn again. And guess what? This is actually advantageous for personal and professional development.
Look at a gap in traditional education as an opportunity for growth
By ditching the idea that we must have schools reopen (in-person, hybrid, or virtually), we can open ourselves up to the possibilities of a non-traditional year. When taken between high school and college, gap years can be incredible opportunities for unique education.
What if instead of trying to force students into the 7am – 3pm grind, we said, “Hey, take this time to learn something you’d never get a chance to fit in during a traditional year.”
Things like learning a new language, discovering a passion for cooking, and planting and caring for a home garden are just a few examples of the home-grown mindfulness we all need right now. Less should be more this year: less stress, less structure, less requirements. By stepping away from the daily grind, we can be thoughtful and intentional about what we reintegrate into our lives when the pandemic comes to pass.
But right now we’re in it. We’re still worried about our jobs, our food security, our health, our loved ones – our lives. We’re at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And we can’t think past our basics right now.
When reopening does happen
Schools should reopen when it’s safe with a renewed focus on the importance of human interaction. Kindness, compassion, sharing, socializing – these “soft skills” are ones that are critical to human development and quality of life. Without the serendipity of running into a long-lost friend or making last minute plans for dinner, we’ve lost some of the basic human needs that make life worth living: being surrounded by people we love.
When schools fully reopen, I want to see them give kids time to spend with each other. More breaks. More outdoor activities. More time for lunch. Less time in front of a screen. Less time stuck doing individual work. More time collaborating with their peers.
What is your school doing?
I drafted this post over the summer when I was scared of what would happen this fall. In the weeks leading up to school, many things changed and we wound up in a very different situation than we planned for. We’re not alone. Let us know in the comments how your district is handling things and how you’re holding up.